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One of the more fascinating conspiracy theories surrounding the movement toward European integration is the allegation that it’s all a Vatican plot. Of course, spend enough time digging around online and it becomes apparent that the Pope has a hand in just about all significant world events. But this particular accusation, which has cropped up again and again, has a bit more tenacity than the average Internet rumor, and the degree of overlap among the conspiracy peddlers here is rather striking: Both modern secularists suspicious of what they perceive to be the project’s ‘backwards’ religious underpinnings and fringe fundamentalists and libertarians trotting out the old One World Government / Beast of Revelation line agree that there is something Roman taking place, the eponymous founding treaty of 1957 being only the beginning.

This time, though, the conspiracy theorists are on to something, if only to a point. As the blog Mirror of Justice recently pointed out, it is surely quite significant that many of the EU’s founding fathers, including Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, and Konrad Adenauer, were devout Catholics. Adenauer, for example, was responsible for founding the Christian Democratic Union, today Germany’s largest political party, incorporating a mix of Protestant-Catholic dialogue, Catholic political thought, and conservative social policy. Adenauer has even been championed by some European bishops as a potential cause for canonization.

Taking a broader view, the dream of a unified Europe has held sway since at least the time of the Roman Empire (and, as a thoroughly Catholic project, since Charlemagne’s crowning in 800). There’s something about it that seems intrinsic to the Catholic worldview, with the Church’s characteristic balance of universality and particularity naturally lending itself to sympathy for European integration, while, on paper at least, “subsidiarity” is an integral principle of the Union. This almost-perfect theoretical accord led Prospect magazine, examining the issue in 2004, to straightly declare that “Catholics are natural pro-Europeans.”

But the Vatican’s plot, if there is one, is clearly not going well. Putting aside discussion of the ongoing debt crisis (which itself certainly brings into question the practicality of translating ecclesial ideals into political form), EU bureaucrats have become justly notorious for their hostility towards religion, and especially Christianity, in the public square. From quasi-legitimate courts of “human rights” outlawing crucifixes in Italian classrooms to the infamous refusal to acknowledge the role of Christianity in treaty preambles, there is no shortage of examples of the Union’s overt contempt for the Faith that built the continent. Indeed, if the Catholic Church was so sure that the integration project would restore the past glories of Christendom, why would popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spent so much time fighting for a re-evangelization of the place?

True, the EU’s liberal dreams”in some ways the ultimate conclusion of longstanding tendencies towards centralization and homogeneity”can seem utterly irreligious. And the Union today strives more for a kind of Kantian cosmopolitanism”vast, but unvaried, and regulated to death by rules”than it does for a robust Catholic pluralism. But these very notions, and the drive to fulfill them, have grown out of the soil of Catholic imagination. So it is more accurate to call the EU a post-Catholic project than to see it as the fulfillment of some sort of Catholic fantasy. It is the bitter, secularized residue of the Holy Roman Empire, not a second coming of the empire itself. And the relationship between the two is not one of conspiratorial cooperation but one of antithesis. But an antagonistic (even abusive) relationship is still a relationship.

Marcello Pera, a former president of the Italian Senate who has gained wide recognition by positioning himself as an atheist intellectual defender of Christianity, makes an apt analogy : The Union has become like Columbus’ egg”its advocates are impressed by its apparent ability to stand on its own, though they ignore or forget the forces which made and sustain its very existence. Pena argues that it was when the basis for integration pivoted away from its basis in religious commonality, with its attendant concept of equality before God, and instead embraced the goals of economic integration and regulatory perfectibility, that this shift took place.

Exactly when European integration shifted from an explicitly religious possibility for European modernity to the secular messianism and top-down management that characterize it today is hard to date accurately. But it is clear that the Union today, imperiled as never before, has done a virtual 180-degree turn away from its founding rationale. Yet it’s also evident that, despite their best efforts, even the most anti-Catholic of the Union’s bureaucrats are merely reacting to a worldview already long and well established, all while thinking in what are, essentially, just Christian terms secularized.

Oswald Spengler was guilty of exaggeration when he declared that “European civilization” was an essentially meaningless term. Nevertheless, as Theodore Dalrymple wrote in a recent piece for City Journal , “whatever content the term may have, it is not sufficient for the formation of a viable polity.” There is scant evidence that a culturally (or even, really, politically) unified ‘Europe’ ever existed in history. But there is Christendom, and the contours of this idea will forever shape the thinking of the continent”even, ironically, in the denial of that very framework. Today’s EU architects”successors to Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer”must acknowledge that the old patterns of religious ties are the only source from which they can hope to achieve enduring integration. In other words, they may just want to adopt the purported Vatican conspiracy as their own.

Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things .

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